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'I was suppressed'

With her husband missing or killed, Syrian refugee finds empowerment in her work

November 22, 2016

Haela Kalawi grew up in Eastern Ghouta, a suburb outside the Syrian capital of Damascus, and was married to 28-year-old lawyer by the age of 15. She dropped out of school, got pregnant, and soon was spending her days cooking, cleaning, and taking care of her children. Except for on Fridays, a weekend day for Muslims, she rarely left her home at all. After the Syrian Civil War began, things changed drastically. Her husband disappeared — a fate shared by thousands of others. As the violence escalated, Kalawi and her children fled to Lebanon.

In Beirut, Lebanon, Kalawi joined her widowed mother, her divorced aunt, and her 20-year-old cousin, whose husband was missing after being seized by Syrian intelligence. The three women, without male breadwinners, had 10 children to feed between them. In Lebanon, approximately one-third of 240,000 Syrian refugee households are headed by women.

Back in Syria, Kalawi had been firmly against the idea of women working. But when Razan said that the recycling plant at which she worked was hiring, Kalawi accepted. “I needed money,” Kalawi said. “I hated to ask my mother for money.” For the first few weeks of her new job, Kalawi added, she often went home crying from shame.

At the recycling plant, which is funded through a Red Cross grant, Kalawi, four of her cousins, and her aunt sort refuse into different bins. Once a week, the owner of the plant organizes separate English classes for his male and female employees — a courtesy for the traditions of the many Syrian refugees working there. In Syria, Kalawi says, talking to a man she didn’t know would make her extremely uncomfortable.

Kalawi does well in her English classes, and finds herself laughing alongside the other women as they struggle to communicate with a Dutch teacher who barely speaks Arabic. When a male American volunteer briefly sits in on the session, she and the other women barely bat an eye.

For all the difficulties of her current life, Kalawi has no intention to remarry. “I married when I was 15 and I was suppressed. I had no personality, no point of view, I had to say ‘yes, yes, yes,'” Kalawi said. “I used to feel shy about everything. Now I talk freely. I participate. The ones who knew me in my old days would be surprised if they see me today.”

Watch video of Kalawi and her family below.

Read the full story at The Associated Press.


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